Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sam Cooke: Night Beat (1963)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Those who contend that Sam Cooke was just a voice, as though that wasn't enough, and as though that voice did not carry in it historical implications, might change their mind if they gave a close listen to this stark and fascinating, highly offbeat session that doubles as one of the definitive soul records of the '60s, but there's really no getting through to such a person anyway. If Cooke's language doesn't speak to you, what's left to say really? In taking in this period of R&B, Night Beat is as crucial as Otis Redding's albums. That it's less known is theoretically a testament to Cooke's slightly old-fashioned tastes and methods -- he offers little of the bump & grind or grit of Redding or Sam & Dave (it was all different live), with even his version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" more Bill Haley than Big Joe Turner, and as a singer he somewhat resembles Nat King Cole at times (see: "I Lost Everything") -- but that doesn't explain why Wilson Pickett's excellent albums of the later '60s are generally overlooked, and the chronological distress caused by the rockist audience's disbelief that any worthwhile album was cut before 1964 (which is so damn exhausting) can't diffuse it either since Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music of '62 is an acknowledged masterwork.

It's more likely that Cooke, who remains immensely popular, was known for delivering a certain kind of exuberant, tirelessly romantic single and Night Beat is a major outlier in his discography. In this guise it is similar to Sarah Vaughan's brilliant After Hours, also a stark and even foreboding recording with scant personnell that sounded nearly a cappella at times. Minimalism has never been an operative factor in any branch of soul save funk, but have you ever heard a Marvin Gaye record with the instruments stripped away? Did that experience rock you to your core? If yes, this album is for you. Of course, spareness is only half of what's going on behind Cooke's inexhaustibly brilliant singing, which is so consistently magic that several songs just keep plodding and plodding until he's tired and yet you never care, but the record, right down to its title, captures a sense of hung-over, city-streets introspection that calls ahead to more florid and bounding records like Gaye's I Want You and Television's Marquee Moon. In other words, this is truly nocturnal music, and the rare sort of record that's capable of changing the feeling in a room when you play it.

And more than superficially; it's not just that the lights are turned low, it's that the thing feels like a privilege to listen to, as though the low-volume band's sole focus is on crying out through the night and falling in line behind Cooke's phantasmagoric voice. That band encompasses, among others, Raymond Johnson and his crazed piano figures on "Laughin' and Clownin'," and most notably a 16 year-old Billy Preston on the organ, inspiring a heart-filling "play it, Billy!" from Cooke on "Little Red Rooster." But for the most part, the record very deliberately is a one-man show, underlined by the use of very simple, even repetitive compositions, mostly pared-down covers, that amount to a slowed-down, snail's-pace blues. Cooke's use of his voice for a darker confessional tone than usual is best exemplified by the haunting early pair "Nobody KNows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Lost and Lookin'," the latter nothing but bass, brushes and vocals, towering and wounding.

The vulnerability of Cooke's vocals on this session, more pronounced than ever, give rise to the real story it tells -- of urban alienation. His own composition "Mean Old World" is almost unbearably lonely, with the mournful slow dance of "I Lost Everything" even more despairing; but all the while, the beauty of Cooke's central performance is absolute. When he begins to hum on "Trouble Blues" or lament his "drinkin' and gamblin'" on "Fool's Paradise," time seems to stop. Cooke deliberately avoids any kind of release or crescendo, predicting the album as the next wave of rock & roll expression. Night Beat sustains its tension all the way through, and despite the cheerful finale, it retains its mastery as a deep cry from the heart. Had Cooke lived longer, it would have been one of many such treasures.

Portrait of a Legend (1951-64)
The Man Who Invented Soul (1957-61)

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